The Gophers pulled out a 71-66 win Saturday night over the Cornell Big Red. That's the good news. The bad? The Gophers again played no perimeter defense, had just occasional consistency on offense, and shot free throws at a 59 percent clip (26-44). It wasn't pretty. At all.
Tubby Smith has quite a bit to fix before the Gophers head to St. Joesph's next week for the team's first road contest. Minnesota certainly doesn't deserve a top 25 ranking the way this team has played its last two home games against less talented competition. First thing for Tubby to fix, Minnesota's defense.
The Gophers didn't give up 55 points in a half the way they did against Virginia, but for the second straight home game, the Gophers allowed an opponent to take pretty much whatever uncontested open three they wanted, whenever they wanted. There was one sequence in the first half where Cornell made a couple uncontested threes in a row. After the second or third make, an exasperated Devoe Joseph threw his hands up in the air with disgust, presumably wondering when Cornell was going to stop making open shots.
Minnesota's man-to-man ball-line defense was so bad at covering the three for the second game in a row, that Coach Smith switched for a few minutes to a 2-3 zone, which is a zone that obviously works to force more outside shots. Cornell finished shooting 42 percent from three.
So how did Minnesota squeak by? Credit Trevor Mbakwe for his 16 boards and 12 points, all on a 12-20 effort from the stripe. Not a great percentage, but Mbakwe's hustle on the glass allowed Minnesota to avert a second-straight loss at home.
Minnesota's best stretch against the Big Red came during the second half when every starter was on the bench. Led by freshman Chip Armelin, Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Maurice Walker, the Gophers during that stretch finally displayed a want-to on both ends of the floor. Armelin specifically, in just 7 minutes of play, asserted himself.
Let's focus on the difference between Ahanmisi and Joseph. In 25 minutes, Joseph looked uncomfortable, scored 5 points, and added 2 assists, 2 turnovers and 2 rebounds. In 15 minutes, Ahanmisi had 2 points, 4 assists, 1 steal, 4 rebounds and 0 turnovers. Ahanmisi might never be the point guard that can score 20 points in a flash the way Joseph can, but right now, the Gophers are better served having a point guard on the floor like Ahanmisi who is playing within himself and running the team's offense. It's a small sample size of just two games, but Joseph so far doesn't look like the player that carried the Gophers during a Big Ten Tournament run a year ago.
The Gophers did much better against Cornell, as compared to the game against Virginia, to use our size advantage to hold down the glass. The Gophers had a 45-29 rebounding advantage that might have been the difference in the game. The Gophers were also better, though not as good as they can be, in running their offense from the inside-out. The Gophers were able to the Big Red's bigs into foul trouble by using our size and depth in the paint. But with such a significant inside advantage, I'm surprised the Gophers didn't force the ball down low more often.
There is no other way to describe the win over Cornell as anything but ugly. With Al Nolen reportedly out until at least the start of Big Ten play, the Gophers have to find a way, especially defensively. And Coach Smith just might think about playing some younger Gophers the minutes they are earning on the court -- specifically Ahanmisi and Armelin. Because if something doesn't change between now and the trip to Philadelphia to play St. Joes, the Gophers won't slip by again.